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Gioachino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
Colbran the Muse
Armida: D’Amor al dolce impero [7.37]; Se al mio crudel tormento [5.39]; Dove son io! [4.33]; È ver... gode quest'anima [2.21]
La donna del lago: Oh mattutini albori! [4.42]; Rondò finale, Tanti affetti in tal momento [4:16]; Fra il padre, e fra l'amante [4.10]
Maometto II: Giusto ciel, in tal periglio [3.38]
Elisabetta, regina d'Inghilterra: Quant'è grato all'alma mia [6.51]
Semiramide: Serena i vaghi rai, [3.15]; Bel raggio lusinghier [6.11]
Otello: Ah! Dagli affanni oppressa [3.36]; Nessun maggior dolore; with Lawrence Brownlee (tenor) [1.49]; Oh come infino al core [2.57]; Assisa appiè d'un salice [7.49]; Deh calma, o ciel, nel sonno [2:35]
Joyce DiDonato (mezzo)
Roberta De Nicola (soprano); Corrado Amici (tenor); Carlo Putelli (tenor)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Rome/Edoardo Müller
rec. Auditorium Parco della Musica, Rome, 8-12 June 2009. DDD
VIRGIN CLASSICS 6945790 [72.05]

Experience Classicsonline

Is there, I wonder, a distinct change in the air in terms of operatic recital discs on CD? In the last couple of years there have been issues glorying in at least two other vocal luminaries of the primo ottocento, that golden period of operatic composition denoting and encompassing the first five decades of the nineteenth century in Italy. It was the glorious period of bel canto, when composers wrote for the popular entertainment of the people, all the people, not just the moneyed or privileged. Vocal display was the order of the day. Later in the century it was overtaken by dramatic romanticism and, in Italy, verismo, opera about the drama of everyday life.

The first of the discs I refer to is Arias for Rubini, featuring Juan Diego Florez (see review) and which has a follow-up entitled Belcanto spectacular (see review). Rubini was the tenor for whom Bellini, in his opera I Puritani, wrote those high Ds in the duet Vieni, vieni fra queste braccia, following them with another and the horrendously difficult high F no less in the ensemble Credeasi misera. Premiered in Paris in 1835 the opera was taken to London and elsewhere by the quartet of singers from the premiere. The same four singers became known as the Puritani quartet. Along with Rubini they included the soprano Giulia Grisi, the baritone Tamburini and the bass Luigi Lablache, formidable singers all, according to contemporary reports. Dominating my reading at present is a biography, the first in English, entitled The Great Lablache; my review of it will appear in due course.

The second CD collection I refer to is that by Cecilia Bartoli and titled Maria (see review). The title and contents relate to the great singing actress, and vocal wonder, Maria Malibran who died tragically young in 1836 following a fall from a horse whilst pregnant. The CD notes that Malibran had a range of nearly three octaves, from E below middle C to high C. Hers was voice with great flexibility and a velvety and dark-grained tone. Joyce DiDonato gave a concert at the 2008 Rossini Festival at Pesaro entitled Maria Malibran (see her journal). Now along comes this CD devoted to arias by Rossini. Its sub-title is Colbran the Muse. It is devoted to arias that Rossini specifically composed for the Spanish soprano Isabella Colbran. A little more history is appropriate to put their relationship in perspective.

After the great success in Venice in 1813 of his operas Tancredi and L’Italiana in Algeri, Rossini’s career was on an upward curve. The entrepreneur and formidable impresario of the Royal Theatres of Naples, Domenico Barbaja, saw him as pre-eminent among his contemporaries. He summoned Rossini to the city in the spring of 1815 and offered him the position of musical director of the city’s two Royal Theatres, the San Carlo and Fondo. Barbaja’s proposals appealed to Rossini for several reasons. Not only was his annual fee generous and guaranteed, but also the San Carlo had a professional orchestra, unlike the theatres of Rome and Venice for example. The composer saw this as a considerable advantage as he aspired to push the boundaries of his opera composition into more adventurous directions and which would also be more acceptable to the sophisticated audience of the San Carlo. Also under the terms of the contract, whilst Rossini was to provide two operas each year for Naples he was permitted to compose occasional works for other cities, a licence he pushed to the limits.

The roster of singers Barbaja had assembled, and which Rossini would have to accommodate in his operas for the city, included the florid tenor Andrea Nozzari and the Spanish dramatic soprano Isabella Colbran, reputed to be Barbaja’s mistress. Both singers appeared in all nine opera seria Rossini premiered at the San Carlo during his tenure. As Philip Gossett states in his usually erudite booklet note, there is some uncertainty as to whether the Colbran roles belong to the soprano or mezzo fach. She was classified as a soprano whilst Rossini was writing for her and is described as such in the autographs. However, by the time of his arrival in Naples her voice had darkened and the composer did not exploit her upper register as he did for the florid Giovanni David. Rossini had also to accommodate the fact that Colbran was a slow starter in that her voice took time to warm up. Consequently, except in Elisabetta, Regina d'Inghilterra, Rossini’s fifteenth and the first of his Naples operas (4-10-1815), there are no showy entrance arias. These were not only considered the norm at the time, but a soprano would often demand a more challenging one than that written if she did not deem it to show off her vocal talents sufficiently. In the case of Elisabetta, it is the cavatina Quant'è grato all'alma mia (Tr.6). This has interesting pre-echoes of Rosina’s Una voce poca fa from Il Barbiere di Siviglia, that followed four months later in Rome, (20-2-1816). It starts immediately after the Queen’s entrance with her ladies in act one, with only a few bars with chorus for the soloist. On a CD like this that is no problem and DiDonato shows her excellent flexibility, coloratura, trill, variety of vocal colour and range. All of these abilities help explain why so many of the roles that Rossini wrote for Colbran suit to perfection a flexible lyric mezzo voice such as hers.

By the time of Rossini’s second opera seria for Naples, Otello, (4-12-1816) not only had Rossini learnt his singer’s foibles, she had changed her affections and they were living together. In Otello Desdemona’s major contributions come at the end of act two and the opening scene of act three in Desdemona’s bedroom together with Emelia. This opens with the recitative with the orchestra gentle swelling as Emilia notes her mistress’s anguish (tr.7) before the intrusion of the brief Gondoliers song (tr.8). A brief recitative for the trio introduces Desdemona’s Willow Song Assisa appiè d'un salice (tr.12) with its gentle harp introduction and sung phrases, with decoration, exactly realised by DiDonato. This is followed by some vocal fireworks, somewhat abbreviated compared with the Opera Rara version sung by Elisabeth Futral (see review) as she laments and hears noises on the glass of the windows. The concluding prayer Deh calma, o ciel, nel sonno (tr.13) has DiDonato floating some lovely phrases that lie easily on my ear. The Gondolier of Lawrence Brownlee, with a rather tight but pronounced vibrato, is credited, but not the worthy Emilia of Roberta De Nicola.

The variety of Rossini’s musical invention for Colbran is well illustrated by the vocal and histrionic demands in his third opera for Naples, Armida, premiered on 11 November 1817. It was the most implausible opera Rossini composed for the San Carlo, just rebuilt after a fire. Barbaja was keen for a work of musical individuality, one breaking away from the prevailing conventions. Above all he wanted a work utilising the new facilities of the refurbished theatre in terms of scenic effect and dance. In fact Rossini produced his most romantic opera to date in terms of the opulence of the music, including three extended love duets, with his music matching the lavish staging. This included Armida’s palace and enchanted garden. The lovers were to descend on a cloud that becomes Armida’s chariot and, as she waves her wand, turns into her castle. Armida cannot really be kept on ice until the last act and sings an aria of seduction of Rinaldo in her enchanted palace (tr.1). DiDonato’s singing is exemplary in its phrasing, decoration and variety of nuance and colour. The aria contrasts brilliantly with the closing final trio from the opera with vocal fireworks wholly typical of a finale of the day (trs.14-16). Whilst not going to extremes of tessitura, this requires well articulated runs and dramatic declamation both well achieved by DiDonato with barely a whiff of aspiration whilst being wholly convincing in dramatic expressiveness. Her expressiveness is also well portrayed in the lament Dove son io! (tr.15) as Armida seeks revenge and glories as the demons destroy everything by fire as she departs on her chariot, È ver... gode quest'anima (tr.16). It must have been quite a visual spectacular and if any theatre stages it today they would have to go a long way to better DiDonato in the title role.

Thus far on CD and DVD I have only known the singer as Cenerentola (see review) and Rosina in Il Barbiere (see review). This recital is a thoroughly convincing justification for her move to the more dramatic roles that Rossini wrote for Colbran. I gather from DiDonato’s blog that she is already scheduled for La donna del lago. Listening to her fine legato and interpretation in the melodic and reflective Oh mattutini albori! from act two of that opera (tr.2), the brilliance of the rondo finale Tanti affetti in tal momento (Tr.3) and concluding Fra il padre, e fra l'amante (tr.4), I would love to have been there as this is virtuoso Rossini singing at its very best. 

Surely Pesaro must use DiDonato, preferably alongside Juan Diego Florez before too long. The Festival needs to stage Semiramide, the last composition Rossini wrote specifically for Colbran (3-2-1823). It was the composer’s thirty-fourth opera. He had turned his back on Naples and the work was presented as part of a special season in Venice devoted to his operas. Gossett reports contemporary critical comment on Colbran’s performance, which was not well received. Her voice had gone and she retired after a Rossini season in London the same year. The two had married the year before with the rather unusual arrangements of her paying a dowry to her man. Unusual by today’s standards, less so in an era when the diva earned more for her performances than the composer of the work did for his efforts. Colbran had also inherited her father’s estate.

In Semiramide Rossini gave Colbran, for the first time since Elisabetta, a two-tempo cavatina with one of his finest cabalettas. Bel raggio lusinghier (tr.8) has become much loved by coloratura sopranos as evidenced by Sutherland’s recording of 1966 (Decca 425 481-2). Sutherland’s decorations go beyond Rossini whose writing it appears was also beyond Colbran. Not so DiDonato, who brings colour, expression and virtuoso well-supported singing and diction to the aria. It is a pity that Virgin did not follow the Rossini chronology and conclude with this piece.

The vibrant idiomatic Santa Cecilia chorus and the conducting of Edoardo Müller contribute to this outstanding CD. Any grumbles? Only that I sense unnecessary added echo around the voices. Put the CD in your computer drive and there are added ‘Open Disc’ benefits.

I started this review by sensing a change in the air in respect of such recitals and how they are harking back to the bel canto era. I cannot remember, in the first decades of LP and CD, even from the likes of Sutherland, a disc devoted to this genre let alone naming a singer from the era in the title. Bigger voices dominated in that period when every month brought a cluster of opera recordings from the likes of Verdi, Puccini and Wagner. Nowadays lighter and more flexible voices predominate whilst festivals in particular, and also the great opera houses, are responding in terms of repertoire. There is a mine of such gold out there to be garnered and the singers to go with it, none more skilled than Joyce DiDonato. 

I have given much more detail and consideration to this recital than normal. I sense it is one of those rare ones which will be looked back on in years to come as setting standards in this repertoire. It has that wow factor; even in February I am sure it will feature in my Records of the Year selections come December.

Robert J Farr



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